How Ford Is Reframing The Future Of Mobility
PSFK attended Ford’s City of Tomorrow Symposium and spoke to John Kwant, VP of City Solutions at Ford, and Alex McDowell, film production designer and creative mastermind behind the event
On August 17 in San Francisco, PSFK attended Ford’s City of Tomorrow Symposium. The event marked a clear move on the part of the automaker to shift, both internally and externally, from a vehicle manufacturer to a mobility provider. With the objective of diagnosing, analyzing and proposing solutions to the many challenges facing cities as they prepare for the future, Ford gathered experts and enthusiasts across many fields to share ideas and create discussion around the future of mobility.
“Mobility should be as accessible as water or electricity. We believe mobility is a human right.” Marcy Klevorn, Executive Vice President and President, Mobility, Ford Motor Company
While autonomous vehicles were a large facet of that discussion, the event was careful not to focus too heavily on the subject and instead endeavored to explore how urban design should be done with a human-centric approach, and how that question spans multiple industries, from fulfillment and delivery to commuting and leisure.
In addition to speaking sessions, the event was framed against the backdrop of a space designed to replicate the natural feel of a city, with areas for breakout sessions and conversation, as well as urban photography from artists Matthew Connors, Katrin Korfman and Noah Sheldon. PSFK sat down with key players to discuss first how these larger questions of worldbuilding and mobility can be expressed through a single day session, as well as how Ford is positioning itself as a key player in the future city.
Alex McDowell is the director of the USC World Building Institute, and a narrative designer who works at the intersection of design, technology and storytelling. He is a renowned film production designer with more than 20 films to his credit, including Minority Report, Fight Club and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Alex McDowell: We’ve been working on the City of Tomorrow as a worldbuilding project from about the end of last year. What that means is that my focus has been on narrative and narrative design, and how we contextualize multiple narratives within the framework of a worldspace.
‘Tomorrow’ is a punctuation point along a path of a deep exploration into how we can develop a deeply researched and curated worldspace that will allow us to develop multiple narratives, essentially an infinite number of narratives in the same way as you could go out into any city, out in San Francisco, and start building stories.
Worldbuilding is something I’ve been doing for about 20 years now since we started with Minority Report and developed it through the entertainment media and film industry into a lot of other real world projects. The beginning of that comes from the kind of experts you gather around it. We feel as if we’re returning to tribal storytelling, and that we’re aggregating these narratives that can’t be carried by any one storyteller.
[The event] is a very tangible expression of four to six hundred people coming together at a very high level of expertise. Our job has been to worldbuild this enough and to develop a cohesive narrative to be able to set up questions that are going to provoke this group to question their own relationship to the future cities, however expert they are, and start a dialogue between each other.
PSFK: How has the concept of Mobility been worked into the presentation of the event?
The people who ask the questions of the world help shape the world. If Ford and the people who are gathering around this event are the ones asking the questions about mobility, then the world will start providing a deep set of answers, a deep slice into the world that is focused on mobility.
What we’re doing is we’re setting up essentially a series of ecologies that are interconnected: energy, society, work infrastructure and culture.
Those four ecologies all inform each other. In any worldspace, you step out of your door in the morning, and you’re immediately engaging in politics, economics, social mobility, space, transportation, work, culture, history and many other things just by walking down the street. Then our job, in the worldbuilding sense, is not only just to capture that data but to use it to drive experiential ways of entering that world space. Then you can say, as we are with Ford, what’s really interesting about this is how does that knowledge of the way the world’s developing affect the transportation system, or many other aspects of city life.
John Kwant is VP of City Solutions and Ford Smart Mobility, where he leads Ford’s global efforts to partner with municipalities to identify urban mobility needs that inform inform its development of new mobility services, while working to create, pilot and implement new mobility solutions.
PSFK: What do you think are the most pressing challenges that Ford is identifying and looking to solve in the future city?
John Kwant: There are cities now where the mobility ecosystem has reached a saturation point. A city like New York has been this way for a long time. San Francisco is certainly this way and now up and down, LA, Houston, Washington DC, Chicago. People just extend their commutes or they try and do off commute times because the system reaches such capacity it becomes saturated, and nothing moves.
What we would contend is that if cities are going to continue to grow, if they’re going to be able to continue to absorb people and all the goods and services that come with those people, they’re going to have to change this notion of what the mobility paradigm is. In the short-term, carrying capacity needs to be increased: more shared modes of use in cities and fewer single‑occupancy vehicles. Chariot’s a great example of this. In the same footprint that you would have a single‑occupancy vehicle carrying 1.2 people on average, you’d have 16.
Vehicles are increasingly becoming more, not only connected to one another, but connected to the infrastructure that they’re part of. From that, there’s a level of orchestration that cities can begin to do where they can coordinate flows of traffic and flows of goods. Ultimately, once you’ve got shared use, you’ve got connected infrastructure; you now have an environment in which you can begin to think about plugging in autonomous vehicles into that as well.
I would argue until you’ve solved the first two, autonomous vehicles are just going to be pilot projects. They’re not really at a point yet where they can be used at scale, because think about what putting an AV into New York right now on its own would look like. It would be paralyzed. It just wouldn’t be able to get anywhere because it defaults to safety.
Approaching the question from a design perspective, how do you balance a clinical, engineering approach to city and transportation design with a more human‑centered design approach?
What we would say is that you can’t solve for either independently; you actually have to solve for them simultaneously. For Ford, it’s really about working the human‑centered focus, or human‑use understanding, into our core product and service development. It’s also about refocusing discussion on the system as a whole
When you start talking to people, you hear for example, “It takes an hour and a half to get to my kid school.” Why is that? In a city like Detroit that up until recently has had a declining population, schools have been closed, and people have to go farther away to get to school, and so that has become a mobility problem because schools are being closed.
What if we re-examine this notion of what a school should be. We could actually distribute classrooms into more local settings where there’s four classrooms instead of 20 in one building, and they are much closer to home. That fundamentally changes the mobility discussion.
Mobility is just a part of a larger solution. Still looking at the school example, maybe we should give a kid a bike the same way we give him a textbook. If that’s worth $125, I can have a kid sign out a bike, and he can get back and forth to school if I entrust him with those assets. That’s the kind of conversation we need to really understand real human needs, what a real city needs.
What role do you want Ford to play in shaping the city of tomorrow?
We have a big part to play because we’re an over 100‑year participant in the transportation process. We think we have a lot to add and offer to this. We manufacture a third of the vehicles here in the U.S. that are on the roads, or have manufactured. We make carriages, conveyance methods for people and goods. Until we invent teleportation, we’re still going to have to physically move people around.
Those forms will change, as we talked about, as well as the systems and ecosystems that they’re operating in. There’s a one‑for‑one curve where any fundamental change in technology usually corresponds to some fundamental change in human behavior or cultural behavior. You don’t necessarily get these changes without a corresponding change in behavior.
We think we can help that along by understanding human use better, understanding how we can incent along that path to increase shared mode usage and help people feel comfortable with autonomous vehicles.
It’s a journey. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we recognize, especially in urban settings, that if we don’t change the paradigm today on how we provide transportation, cities will just continue to become more and more congested to the point where people simply wont be able to get around.